The narrative that most Japanese embrace (or imagine they share) broke down; none of these “common values” proved the least effective in warding off the evil violence that erupted under us.—Haruki Murakami, Underground
New Religions and the Aum Affair
“New Religion” (“new religious movements” or NRM) is a nebulous term for religions founded in roughly the last two centuries. Broadly speaking, they are syncretic (pulling beliefs from multiple religions that predate them), and their teachings often deviate from societal norms. Japan has a particularly fraught relationship with New Religions, especially in the wake of the 1995 “Aum Affair.”
Very briefly, Aum Shinrikyo is a Japanese New Religion that began in the mid-1980s. Founder Shoko Asahara eventually claimed to be a Buddha; a reincarnation of the Hindu God of destroying evil, Shiva; and a Christ Messiah (Gunaratna). Over the course of a decade, the group evolved into a millenarian religious organization with political ambitions and over ten thousand members.
On 20 March 1995, elite figures in Aum leadership carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground train system. The attack killed twenty-seven people and injured thousands. In the aftermath, Japanese media whipped public opinion into an anti-Aum frenzy marked by hundreds of hours of largely anti-Aum programming on national TV. The public response quickly accelerated the century-old Japanese suspicion of New Religions and “permanently transformed concern about new religions into characterizations of these organizations as cults that kill” (McLaughlin).
The popular view in Japan was more or less that “certain types of movements, especially ones that, like Aum, preached a message of rejection of normative social mores and values and that aspired to the formation of a new spiritual order might prove dangerous to society” (Reader). In the words of one researcher, “more than any other new religion in recent history, [Aum] presented itself as the consequence of a perceived demise of modern society, one to be ritually expelled in order to reestablish social equilibrium” (McLaughlin).
But New Religious Movements like Aum have also proven to be a convenient “Other” in Japanese society. (For example, some media outlets and members of government intentionally conflated Aum with Japan’s largest New Religion, Soka Gakkai, to damage its credibility. Already a weakened organization, the group has never really recovered.) For example, The Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper condemned the attackers as “a dark, twisted shadow lurking somewhere in this peaceful and prosperous society” (as qtd. in Ushiyama and Baert).
Here, I want to explore just a few Japanese novels—1Q84, There’s No Such Thing As an Easy Job, and Earthlings—that demonstrate an ongoing anxiety about Aum and the impact of New Religions. Haruki Murakami, Kikuko Tsumura, and Sayaka Murata all explore New Religion as a way to deal with alienation in modern Japanese culture.
Haruki Murakami on Aum
Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a non-fiction, genre-bending exploration of the 1995 attacks on the Tokyo metro. In what was published as part II of the English translation, “The Place That Was Promised,” Murakami presents interviews with former and then-current Aum members. One of the issues Murakami highlights is the feelings of “difference,” of “not fitting in” that Aum members feel:
There was a huge gap between the image I had of what an adult should be and the actual adults around me.
There always seemed to be a wall separating me from the rest of the world.
I don’t have any special skills, nothing makes me stand out from the crowd. I don’t even feel like I want to get married.
I felt a deep alienation between my outer and inner Self.
These are also the sorts of refrains repeated by many alienated characters in contemporary Japanese novels.
Murakami’s approach to “New Religions”—in the form of Aum in his non-fiction and in other forms in his fiction—is nuanced. Without ever excusing Aum or its members for the sarin attack, Murakami rejects the narrative of Aum as “foreign” or “Other.” Instead, he suggests that Aum is a response to alienation in contemporary Japanese society. He notes that
They [members of the Aum Science and Technology elite] couldn’t help having grave doubts about the inhumane, utilitarian gristmill of capitalism and the social system in which their own essence and efforts—even their own reasons for being—would be fruitlessly ground down.
To Murakami, Aum isn’t foreign, but a kind of “unwanted outcome” or “repressed subconscious” of an “excessively materialist society that excludes those who do not embrace the norms of capitalism” (Ushiyama and Baert).
Murakami’s conclusion is that it isn’t really helpful to break Aum members into Us and Them. Aum is a decidedly Japanese New Religion that exists within Japanese society, not outside it.
Murakami also explores New Religions in his 2009-10 novel 1Q84. Unlike in Underground, here he is not constrained by material truth; as he describes in his 2009 acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Literary Prize: “By telling skillful lies—which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true—the novelist can bring a truth out to a new place and shine a new light on it.”
Sakigake, the 1Q84’s New Religion, varies from Aum in several important ways. Nevertheless, it echoes Aum, most notably both organizations’ dependence on single charismatic gurus and their willingness to use violence to achieve their aims. (Note also that Aum was founded in 1984.) An act of violence carried out by a Sakigake splinter group seems to be the event that separates the 1984 in which the novel takes place (“1Q84”) from the historical 1984.
The novel’s heroine Aomame grew up in the Society of Witnesses—pretty transparently the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She is the strongest voice in the novel against what she thinks of as “religious fundamentalists”: their “intolerant worldview, their inflated sense of their own superiority, and their callous imposition of their own beliefs on others” fills her with an almost uncontrollable rage. But Murakami’s approach is more modulated.
As a writer, Murakami is deeply interested in metanarrative—stories that stories tell about stories. He is consistently wary of writing “good guys” and “bad guys” into his fiction because our lived reality excludes this kind of dualism. In 1Q84, Murakami considers the role of religion in helping people define the meta narrative of their own lives. In the words of Sakigake’s Leader,
Most people are not looking for provable truths. As you [Aomame] said, truth is often accompanied by intense pain, and almost no one is looking for painful truths. What people need is beautiful, comforting stories that make them feel as if their lives have some meaning. Which is where religion comes from.
The words call to mind Underground’s afterword: “Reality is created out of confusion and contradiction, and if you exclude those elements, you’re no longer talking about reality.” In 1Q84 as in the rest of his work, Murakami never creates a fictional “reality” without plenty of “confusion and contradiction.” Religions are harmful when they tell comforting stories that no longer reflect the real world.
One of the more interesting features of 1Q84 is how carefully Aomame and the Dowager who commissions her assassinations toe the line that separates them from any other cult-like organization. They, too, are alienated from society. They, too, make up an insular group. They, too, adopt their own code of morality and consequences. The Dowager insists on paying Aomame for her assassinations to prevent her from “feeling that [she] can do anything [she] want[s] as long as it’s the right thing and [her] feelings are pure.” Leader himself notes that Aomame’s attitude “is itself the very essence of religion.”
Again, for Murakami there is no Us and Them for people who might be attracted to a New Religion.
Lonely No More in There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job
I’d like to thank Bloomsbury for an early review copy of this novel. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job was released in the UK in 2020 and will be released in the US on March 23, 2021.
Kikuko Tsumura’s There No Such Thing as an Easy Job is about a young woman who has burnt herself out through overwork in a beloved first career. “The Postering Job” is the third of four attempts she makes to find less taxing work for herself. This time, she’ll be asking people to put up public service announcements in the front windows of their homes—“Check behind you when turning corners!”, “Make our town greener!”, “Water belongs to everyone”. (Despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to determine whether these sorts of posters are a normal part of life in Japan.)
On her first day of work, the narrator finds many posters that her employer isn’t responsible for. They feature a beautiful young woman, casually dressed, holding out her hand. The text reads “Lonely No More!” and provides the Lonely No More! organization’s contact information. These posters have a more “psychological” emphasis and a different “emotional weight” than the public service announcements the narrator is handing out.
The narrator soon learns that Lonely No More! is aggressively recruiting in the neighborhood. One resident tells her, “They don’t give up. It’s not a job with them, see—it’s a dogma.”
There are, of course, other and timelier Japanese religious organizations that Lonely No More! might call to mind for Japanese readers. Nevertheless, the Aum Affair has, perhaps indelibly, colored the public perception of all New Religions (see McLaughlin), and I feel fairly confident that Tsumura invokes an Aum-related dread in her novel.
Much like Aum, Lonely No More! exploits community members alienation or their feelings that they can’t easily participate in normal social behavior.
Also like Aum, Lonely No More! uses people who are young and attractive as its public face. The narrator reflects on how such an organization might prey on the young; she recognizes how much more vulnerable she would have been to these tactics if she were in her twenties instead of in her thirties.
When the protagonist finally investigates a Lonely No More! meeting, Tsumura’s narration again carries implicit Aum anxiety. She describes the members’ “strangely large pupils that seemed to bleed over into their irises, making their eyes seem either out of focus, or weirdly well in focus.” (Strangely dilated pupils are one of the most well-known symptoms of sarin poisoning.)
She also describes tactics that sound almost like they are pulled from the testimony of a former Aum member interviewed in Underground. He “dropped by” an Aum dojo, caught a sermon, and spoke with an Aum follower. “Later,” he continues, “I realized that was one of Aum’s standard tactics. Usually people who go to these kinds of places are lacking something or seeking something, but the dojo seemed pleasant enough, and being asked to join like that, out of the blue, I just went with the flow…”
The narrator understands the potential impact of this kind of recruitment:
To believe that such tactics wouldn’t work… was overly optimistic. In reality, when issued an invitation by a good-looking youngster who was sympathetic to their predicament, there were a lot of people who would fall for it.
For Tsumura, there’s no easy solution for dealing with groups like Lonely No More! “Helping people feel less lonely doesn’t seem like such a bad aim,” the narrator reflects, “But why do they have to go barging their way into people’s lives like that?” Surely an exploitative group isn’t the answer, but, for many people, there isn’t an obvious alternative. The narrator helps her employer successfully drive Lonely No More! out of the neighborhood, but the organization and then her employer disappear overnight. The rather anodyne conclusion to the chapter doesn’t address how the narrator or Lonely No More! members feel about being abruptly abandoned.
Tsumura, like Murakami, must carefully draw the line between which kind of organizations are threatening and which are not. The posters the narrator has been asked to put up are themselves intended for “the regularization of society.” When the narrator speaks with each homeowner, she has been assigned to ask, “How many people are in your family? Do you have any concerns? Do you have anyone to talk to about your concerns?” This is the kind of personal information Lonely No More! would exploit, and the narrator senses “a certain darkness lurking” behind the questions. Perhaps Tsumura is flirting with the idea that many of us live more closely aligned with cult-like behaviors than we would like to admit.
I’d like to thank Grove Press for a review copy of this novel. Earthlings is available now from your favorite bookseller.
All of Sayaka Murata’s work published in English (“A Clean Marriage,” Convenience Store Woman, and now Earthlings) features women who are alienated—from society, from their families, and even from their own bodies. (Read more about women’s alienation from their bodies in Murata and other contemporary Japanese writers.) Alienation takes a more sinister turn in Earthlings and takes on traits of a New Religion.
Earthlings‘s Natsuki may be one of contemporary Japanese fiction’s most alienated characters. She notes early in the novel that the phrase “close-knit family” describes her parents and her sister; if she “weren’t there,” “the three of them would make a perfect unit.”
Like Murakami, Murata explicitly relates feelings of alienation to late-stage capitalism. Natsuki describes herself as “a tool for the town’s good” who must “study hard to become a good work tool” and “be a good girl, so that [she can] become a reproductive organ for the town.” She expects to be a failure at both, but she knows she will need to be self-sufficient someday—“when you [are] able to buy food for yourself, you [don’t] need to worry about being thrown away.”
Eventually Natsuki marries Tomoya, a man who is as opposed to society’s “Factory” as she is. (The idea that society is a Factory for making babies echoes Murakami’s “utilitarian gristmill.”) Natsuki and Tomoya marry only to avoid external criticism and never consummate the relationship. The couple reunites with Natsuki’s equally alienated cousin Yuu. They aren’t weird, they decide together—they’re all from another planet, Popinpobopia.
Natsuki has always lived by trying to allow society to “brainwash” her so she, too, “would be able to live with a smile on [her] face in the virtual reality world in which everyone [is] living.” With Yuu’s help, the trio decides instead to leave society behind and live as they want.
Living on their own, without the pressures of normative culture, darkens quickly. A few months in, they carry out murder to protect themselves and then cannibalize the corpses to keep themselves fed. When that source of meat fails, they begin cannibalizing each other in a stomach-turning orgy of consuming and being consumed.
Perhaps what makes the Popinpobopians the most frightening group of all is its size. It is a group of only three, farther from society than Aum, Sakigake, or Lonely No More!. That extra separation from society drives them to the most unthinkable (though, frankly, not the most destructive) behaviors of all.
Gunaratna, Rohn. “Aum Shinrikyo’s Rise, Fall, and Revival” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 2018.
Hardacre, Helen. “Aum Shinrikyo and the Japanese Media: The Pied Piper Meets the Lamb of God” in History of Religions, 2007-8.
McLaughlin, Levi. “Did Aum Change Everything? What Soka Gakkai Before, During, and After the Aum Shinrikyo Affair Tells Us About the Persistent ‘Otherness’ of New Religions” in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 2012.
Reader, Ian. “Consensus Shattered: Japanese Paradigm Shift and Moral Panic in the Post-Aum Era” in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 2001.
Ushiyama, Rin and Patrick Baert. “Cultural Trauma, Counter-Narratives, and Dialogical Intellectuals: the Works of Murakami Haruki and Mori Tatsuya in the Context of the Aum Affair” in Theory and Society, 2016. (Creative Commons Licensed)
7 thoughts on “Aum Anxiety”
Thank you for this very informative and detailed look at Japanese NRMS. I did my Ph.D. on Japanese NRMs as part of a project at a UK university (we got funded by Japan after the whole debacle about the sarin gas attack and concern about Aum and other such religious movements). I actually looked at Soka Gakkai and a couple of other religions in Europe (especially in Germany). And yes, things are a lot more nuanced than people think, and a lot of the fictional depiction of ‘cults’ seems to me very clicheed. Yes, there are some very manipulative and abusive founders of religious movements, but others are relatively benign and bring great comfort and a sense of community to people who feel marginalised within their society.
Thanks for your comment. As I wrote this, I was surprised how much a superficial reading of fiction accounts had colored my understanding.
Easy to vilify (and some of them deservedly so).
Oh, and Ian Reader was one of the external examiners for my thesis.
Wonderful overview of NRMS and contemporary Japanese fiction! Last year I read Togawa Masako’s The Master Key (1962). It is set against the backdrop of the Occupation of Japan and features a sinister new religion that is very cult-like and eerily reminiscent of the descriptions of Aum.
Thanks for the recommendation!